Facing death-5: Fear of death

There is a curious thing about death. We all know it is inevitable, that we will all experience it some day, but yet our own death is a subject that we recoil from contemplating. While death, often violent, is a common feature of our entertainment culture, as can be seen by its ubiquity in the storylines in books, films, TV programs and even video games, few people like to think about their own mortality. They are more comfortable talking about the death of others because then death can be talked about in the abstract, not as something real.

People rarely plan for their own death either, unless they face death directly because they have been told they have a terminal illness. In one sense, life itself is a terminal illness and we are all approaching death from the time we are born. But most people do not really plan for their own death. People put more thought into their vacation planning than in getting their affairs in order before they die.

To be sure, the problem with planning for one’s death, unlike with your vacation, is that you don’t know exactly when it is going to happen. But I suspect that there is more to this reluctance than the lack of knowledge of an exact date. People do not plan for their death because of the fear and discomfort the topic generates or perhaps out of some subconscious superstitious belief that thinking and planning for it might somehow bring it closer. It is like those who prefer not see a doctor even if they have symptoms that something is wrong, thinking that if they ignore it, the problem might not exist or even go away by itself.

It is natural not to want to die. It is not hard to understand in evolutionary terms why we instinctively shy away from dangerous situations that might cause death or serious injury. Such heritable aversive reactions, like the instinctive recoil when we encounter a snake in our path, have definite survival advantages. Those animals that had a lower death avoidance instinct were more likely to die early, thus leaving fewer offspring to inherit that trait. Those who had a greater instinct to take steps to avoid death were more likely to survive to pass on that trait to their progeny. So it should not be a surprise that all animals have, over time, evolved a highly developed instinctive tendency to try and avoid death.

But while we can understand the origins of the instinct to avoid death and why it is common to all animals, why is it that it seems like only we humans seem to fear death even when it is not imminent? I don’t think that nonhuman animals contemplate their own death far into the future, though I don’t know for sure or how we would ever would find out.

Perhaps it is because the emotions of fear and dread require capacities that are human, like high levels of self-awareness. The ability to foresee one’s own death even in the absence of immediate danger is likely to be something that is present only at the human level of consciousness, where we have the ability to think of ourselves in the third person. The ability to envisage a future where we have died and ceased to exist and yet the world goes on without us, must play an important role in creating the dread that humans face.

As someone said (I believe it was Christopher Hitchens when he was facing his own death though he may have been quoting someone else) dying feels like being asked to leave a party before it is over. It seems so unfair. In my case, my main regret about dying is that there will be so many unfinished storylines that I have been involved in or am following and I will not be around to see how they get resolved. Of course, new storylines are always emerging and so this is a problem that will never go away. One has to reconcile oneself to the fact that one will not be around to see how some questions are answered and some problems resolved.

This may explain why apocalyptic stories where the whole world ends seem to be not as frightening as contemplating one’s own solitary death. If everyone dies, the party’s over and you are not missing out on anything.

The fear of death (as opposed to the instinct to avoid death) may partly have its origins as a social phenomenon. Because we have language and culture, we also have a strong sense of past and future time and can talk about times long before we existed and long after we die. But would we still be able to envisage life after our own death and dread it if we did not know from others that a past existed before us and there is a future after us?

Such a question may be impossible to answer. We now have language and a history and culture and there is no way in which it can be made to disappear.


  1. says

    I’m not afraid to think about it.

    What bothers me about my inevitable death is how unpredictable it’s lilkely to be. If I could put it on a calendar, go somewhere comfortable, empty my colon and my bladder, say my goodbyes and lie down, maybe make a final web-posting, I think I’d be much happier about the whole thing. Instead we’ve got this potentially painful, potentially embarrassing, thing hanging over us — what if instead of checking out with a witty bon mot, I go facedown choking in a plate of pasta in a restaurant? What if I traumatize a friend who has to try to deal with it? What if it’s painful and involves a lot of blood and bystanders observing my intestines?

    Intellectually, I am always drawn to suicide because it seems to me to be the only way to avoid the potential “SURPRISE!” factor, and to be able to do it alone (though in that sense the dying are always alone because one’s death is perfectly personal) The idea of life after death is absurd and riddled with contradictions. And, as Epicurus said, I had no fear of what came before I lived. I guess I’m just squeamish about the details.

    There’s a quip I always enjoy, which goes like this:

    I want to die quietly and peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather did, not shrieking and struggling like the people who were in the back set of the car he was driving at the time.

  2. mnb0 says

    “yet our own death is a subject that we recoil from contemplating.”
    How do you mean? I have been contemplating my own death since I was a boy. Not 24/7, mind you, quite irregulary, but contemplate I did. It became less during the 20 years I raised my son of course. The outcome always has been more or less the same: I do not fear death. Even as a boy I realized that what I fear is dying and the suffering involved.
    Perhaps it’s because I picture being dead as being asleep. That’s a form of leaving the party too. In fact we can’t be too sure that it will be only temporal.

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